San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow on Thursday criticized the state’s move last weekend to close certain indoor businesses in the county, saying there’s no evidence to suggest the spread of COVID-19 is higher in those businesses than in others that are allowed to operate.
Dr. Morrow’s statement Thursday drew news headlines for its dissent against the state’s coronavirus watch list, which aims to monitor and curb trends of rising COVID-19 cases. Currently, all Bay Area counties are on the watch list.
“The brand new, arbitrary and constantly changing framework that the State has set up to put counties on the watch list and to determine closures (beyond the State “floor”) is fundamentally flawed in several ways,” Dr. Morrow said.
What’s causing the spread is “not primarily from barber shops, nail salons, or the other businesses that were targeted in this most recent closure,” Dr. Morrow said in the statement.
“While it’s certainly a theoretical possibility that some transmission can occur in the businesses/operations that were just closed by the State, there is no evidence that I have, and no evidence the State has provided to me, that leads me to believe the spread is higher in these businesses than those businesses/operations that are allowed to operate,” he said.
The majority of infections the County is seeing involve front line workers and those who live in crowded multigenerational conditions, Dr. Morrow said in an earlier statement on July 20. Many infections are related to “fairly small gatherings of family and friends,” he added.
“Try getting compliance with isolation and quarantine when the infected person is the breadwinner for the family and the family will be out on the street if they don’t go to work,” he said. “And when they go to work they will, perhaps, interact at that job with you. There is not enough enforcement capacity in the world to stop this from happening. The implication of this is that the current business focused restrictions will do little to stem the spread of the virus when the spread is exacerbated by these conditions.”
Dr. Morrow also said the “very restrictive measures put into place in the Spring” didn’t do a lot to drive down the rate of the infection’s spread in San Mateo County. The rate has been “slowly dropping for at least 4 weeks,” he added. Hospitalizations in the county are on a downward trend and deaths are low, Dr. Morrow added.
“If you have read my previous statements, you know I put great import on balance,” he said. “We have to minimize spread while not destroying everything else in the process. I watch the news and I certainly get alarmed by some of what’s going on in the country, and even in our state. But I have to make the best decisions and recommendations based on our data which reflects the situation in our community. Our numbers indicate we are in a relatively stable state in regards to the spread of the virus. For those who want to drive the spread to zero, this is simply not possible.”
While Dr. Morrow lauded Gov. Newom’s “many great, broad and appropriate actions” over the last few months, he’s come out against the state’s current watch-list policy, citing inconsistency in data and state benchmarks that may not work on a local level.
“The underlying framework has no room to take the context of what’s actually going on in a locality into account,” he said. “A rational and logical look at the true meaning of the data (which we should do with all data) has no role in the process.”
Dr. Morrow added, “I feel the State has made the wrong ‘diagnosis’ and therefore is prescribing the wrong ‘treatment’ for San Mateo County.
“Probably the biggest problem I see is in the application of public health law. While it is true the State Health Officer and the Local Health Officer have partially overlapping statutory authorities, it is generally understood, and there is very long precedence, that the State Health Officer doesn’t take action against the Local Health Officer unless there is an ask to do so, the Local Health Officer can’t take action because of extenuating circumstances, or the Local Health Officer is negligent. I didn’t ask for these actions to be taken, I’m certainly capable of taking these actions if warranted, and I do not believe I’m being negligent. ”
Either way, San Mateo County residents must cease gatherings outside of immediate households, use facial coverings extensively, and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he said.